Assessing the meaning of “prayer” is like assessing the meaning of “game”, “success”, or “happiness”: It comes in so many forms that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what people might have in mind when they use the word. Typically, it is an act that involves some combination of contemplation and affectation. Thus it can be either introspective or performative in nature. Moreover, it can be done for any number of reasons. The approaches vary, the motives vary, and the goals vary; but the common thread seems to be one or another variant of divination: invoking–or, as it were, tapping into–supernatural powers so as to bring about some desired state of affairs (be it in oneself or out in the world).
Prayer can confer any number of benefits–individual transcendence, social acceptance, and/or some kind of yearned-for dispensation. At the end of the day, people pray because it offers some sort of gratification–be it from solace or from an anticipation of wonderful things (that might be “held in store” for those who are doing it properly).
And so it goes: Prayer can be used to show appreciation or to receive revelation or to petition. It can be an act of submission or an act of reflection. Whether it is counting one’s blessings, achieving enlightenment, or asking for favors, it usually has something to do with “getting in touch with” or “getting closer to” the divine (however conceived).
All this may or may not involve idolatry; which is simply to say that prayer is often a mode of worship–something that is itself far from straight-forward. After all, worship can entail anything from solemn reverence (demonstrating awe) to unctuous praise (demonstrating fealty).
To engage in a thorough inquiry of such a widely-variegated activity, it is difficult to even known where to begin.
Let’s start with imprecation. Petitionary / intercessory prayer can be found in virtually every culture that has ever existed–from the incantations of Wicca to the “duat” of Muslims. The petitioning of deities dates back to the the 23rd century B.C. with the (Sumerian) hymns of the Akkadian high priestess, Enheduanna of Ur. Her pleas, addressed to the goddess Inanna, were the earliest record of FORMALIZED (that is: ritualistic) prayer.
The phenomenon is global. On the Indian subcontinent, there’s the Vedic tradition of “upasthana” (alternately known as “stotra” or “bhakti” in both Hindu and Buddhist vernacular). In Persia, there’s the Zoroastrian “dahm[an]” (as attested in the “Avesta”). In the Levant, Judaic “kohenim” prostrated themselves before burnt offerings on the “dukhan”. And around the eastern Mediterranean rim, there were paeans to Mithra[s] (as attested in the Greco-Roman “Magical Papyri”). In each case, people beseech a supernatural entity to fulfill some sort of desire.
We are all inclined to be solicitous of those in power–be that power worldly or otherworldly. When we earnestly want something, and when we believe in an omniscient super-being that heeds our call, we are naturally moved to request that said super-being oblige us. Using prayer as a petition, then, is perhaps its most common form.
While belief in this scheme holds undeniable appeal for the supplicant, there is an ancillary benefit to those in positions of authority. When it comes to enforcing compliance / conformity (vis a vis the established order), prayer as imprecation can be used to serve the interests of those who enjoy worldly power…and deign to affirm it. As is often the case, it is the prospect of wish-fulfillment (and tribulation-avoidance) that impels people to be subservient to those who speak on behalf of the ultimate authority. The thinking amounts to the following: “If you want things to work out well for you, then you’ll get with the program. Don’t rock the boat, lest you jeopardize your good standing in the cosmic scheme.” When one implores X, one is BEHOLDEN TO X; as one is entering into the relationship from an inferior position. By the same token, X (or those who claim to speak on behalf of X) will approach the relationship from a superior position: If you want me to do something for you, you will meet my demands.
Petition is transactional in nature. Ultimately, the terms of the exchange are about using leverage. Insofar as one curries favor with the deity, the thinking goes, one earns the right to issue pleas. Hence worship is not only about reverence; it is–in part–about accruing soteriological capital…which confers the right to adjure. In this sense, orison is done as blandishment; which it simply to say that it is a means of ensuring that one remains in good standing with the Creator of the Universe (who, it is generally believed, doles out reward and punishment accordingly). Thus praise is an sop–a reminder that worship is invariably transactional; as it comes with expectations of a return on investment. Hence the idiom of “indebted-ness” to the deity.
Prayer as imprecation is so commonplace because wish-fulfillment is the most potent enticement in life–be it fanciful or aspirational. It comes as no surprise, then, that the act of prayer was referred to as “pros-eukhomai” (Greek for “toward a wish”) during Classical Antiquity. (The Vulgar Latin term for supplication was “precaria”, as used by the Roman Catholic church through the Middle Ages.) Some version of supplication seems to play a role in virtually every culture since time immemorial; as we are creatures that have hopes about some things and concerns about others. Such desires govern our lives.
Beyond the rudimentary calculus of incentives and disincentives, we yearn for good fortune while worrying about misfortune. Consequently, we are moved take measures–some practical, some delusional–to bring about the former (as with the medieval Anglo-Saxon “Æcerbot”, used to ensure soil fertility for their crops) and forestall the latter (as with the apotropaic spells of Classical Antiquity, used to stave off tragedy). The more urgent we feel, the more delusive our tactics tend to be. Those who are most predisposed to superstition (viz. theism and animism) are inclined to resort to petitionary / intercessory prayer; especially when in dire straits. When done out of desperation, the sense of urgency disposes one to posit an ever-more far-fetched ignis fatuus; which translates to an increased willingness to curry favor with the powers that be…whatever it takes.
The perceived need to earn soteriological capital is integral to this arrangement. For once a supplicant feels that the ultimate authority is willing to–as it were–go to bat for him AS NEEDED, he will be more willing to meet whichever conditions have been set before him. Consequently, he feels more comfortable beseeching that authority. And insofar as certain figures are seen as (worldly) proxies for an (otherworldly) authority, a supplicant will be motivated to play by whatever rules have been stipulated. To do otherwise would be to put that dispensation in jeopardy. In this fanciful scheme, it is supposed that one derives the prerogative to IMPLORE from one’s willingness to SUBMIT. Submit to whom? Well, to the godhead, of course.
To reiterate: There is often a corollary to this arrangement; as those wielding power IN the world (that is: those who are “calling the shots” politically / theologically) are seen as part of a divine plan that must be honored. Consequently, for imprecations to work, one must remain in THEIR good graces as well. This impression is reinforced to the degree that a worldly authority is seen as a (divinely ordained) proxy for the otherworldly authority. Naturally, the worldly proxy takes measures to ensure this impression is widely held. (“Get with the program, and everything will turn out well. Be derelict in your responsibilities, and you’ll be sorry.” For more on this, see my essay: “The Island”.)
The social psychology involved is relatively straight-forward. Those who feel that they are in existential arrears–especially those who are busy groveling–are much easer to control. Feeling “indebted” means that one will feel obliged to SERVE (in proportion to the perceived debt). The formula is no less true when the debt is to a farcical super-being (where the magnitude of the debt is often infinite). This is in keeping with the feats performed in the etiology and the promises made in the eschatology. “I only exist because of you; and you stand to grant me eternal life” translates to the epitome of indebted-ness.
Paying tribute is a funny thing, as “praise” (the ostensive purpose of NON-petitionary prayer) often has two aspects: worship and gratitude. In other words, it is an amalgam of idolization and appreciation. Such is the nature of benediction–as seen with, say, the “aliyah le-dukhan” in Judaic tradition. Showing appreciation (“hoda’ah” in Biblical Hebrew) does not require one to fawn (that is: engage in idolatry). Hence it is not necessary to prostrate either one’s mind or one’s body. (Reverence does not mandate servility.) Yet when supplicants engage in veneration, it is often more a matter of truckling than of simply expressing esteem.
Intercessory prayer, then, is as much groveling as it is tribute. This is most evident with respect to a supplicant’s orientation toward the Abrahamic deity; yet it is seen in countless other traditions–from the imprecations of African Shamans (involving animism of some sort) to Shinto priests asking for favors from the kami. As usual, this arrangement comes in handy for those in power (insofar as those in power claim divine sanction), and can be used as leverage whenever political power is at stake. The claim is always the same: It is necessary to believe that abiding the established order is a prerequisite for securing the grace of [insert deity here].
Those who feel that they owe fealty to a figurehead–real or imagined–will be more likely to follow orders from anyone who claims to speak on behalf of that figurehead. Thus propitiation is a means to engender obeisance as a chronic cast of mind.
Indoctrination is the opposite of edification; yet the former is often misconstrued as the latter. Behavioral routines can often serve to reinforce psychical routines; and vice versa. Habits of conduct and habits of thought are, indeed, mutually reinforcing.
In his “The Age of Reason”, Thomas Paine noted that the supplicant “prays dictatorially”. How so? “When it is sunshine, he prays for rain; and when it is rain, he prays for sunshine. He follows the same idea in everything for which he prays. For what is the amount of all his prayers but an attempt to make the Almighty change his mind, and act other than he does? It is as if he were to say: Thou know not so well as I.”
Paine was half right. For many, prayer is treated as an astral version of online shopping–that is: as an imprecation. This suits those who are yearning for wish fulfillment above all else. Petitioning the powers-that-be to fulfill one’s desires has been standard for much of human history. The question, then, is what does this ENTAIL? Is it an act of submission or of liberation? Is it more affective or more contemplative?
The notion that one must suspend critical thinking in order to feel connected to the divine is without merit–and leads more to fatuity than to epiphany. Ritualized prayer, we find, is largely an act of self-indulgence disguised as reverence. One can thus pass self-ingratiation off as self-abnegation; and pass indulgence off as some kind of deference.
Ritualization is inseparable from conditioning. The rational for promoting ritualized prayer, then, is relatively straight-forward: IF people are obliged to repeat something over and over and over again, day in and day out, without reprieve, over the course of their entire lives, starting in their formative years, and everyone else in their community is doing the same thing; THEN there is a very high chance that they will eventually come to believe it. Prescribed routines are never about genuine Enlightenment; they are about reinforcing habits. In fact, religiosity subsists via deeply-ingrained habits of thought / behavior. After all, any behavioral routine that is repeated day in and day out will invariably determine the manner in which one thinks; which, in turn, further enforces the behavior.
Though ritualized prayer (that is: propitiation) is done under the auspices of “connecting with” / “getting in touch with” the divine (or, as the case may be, paying tribute to the designated deity), its true purpose is to inculcate the supplicant with pre-fab thought-routines. That is to say: Prayer, insofar as it is ritualistic and obligatory, is part of a program of perpetual reinforcement, used to uphold a regime of institutionalized dogmatism.
As we’ll see, subservience is not a prerequisite for genuine spirituality. In fact, it is positively antithetical to it. The utility of scripted / choreographed prayer is more about conditioning than it is about enlightening. For it conditions the supplicant–positioning him for adherence to scripts / choreography in OTHER contexts. Such a routine involves a phenomenon known in neuroscience as “priming”: establishing a pre-disposition to think / behave in a certain way.
Habits of behavior and habits of thought are symbiotic; so repeated routine creates neural pathway dependency. Behavioral routines ensure people remain fixed within the desired mindset. ROUTINE–religious and otherwise–tends to abet the status quo; so it encouraged by those who have the most to gain from things remaining as is. Heterodox thinking threatens to undermine the established order, so must be curbed.
(Those IN power USE that power to PROTECT that power; which means upholding the state of affairs on which their continued power depends. In other words: Those who benefit most of incumbent power structures have a vested interest in using their position to preserve them AS IS. This means persuading all others that it’s in EVERYONE’S best interest to honor the established order…as divinely ordained.)
There is an undeniable appeal to petitionary prayer. Groveling–even when formalized–requires minimal cognitive exertion, making it appealing to the mentally lethargic; and useful for those in power…who would much prefer the masses are disinclined to engage in critical thinking…which may lead to questioning the credence of the status quo. The point of RITUALIZED prayer is to FEEL, not to THINK. After all, worship is amplified affectation (directed at a particular object), not an exercise in deliberation (which is forever open-ended).
The raison d’etre of propitiation, then, is not ratiocination; it is concession.
But not all prayer is a matter of imprecation; some of it is more about introspection (as with meditation). Alas, both the propitiations of deluded votaries AND the contemplative practices of the genuinely spiritual are labeled the same thing: “prayer”. This can’t help but lead to confusion. The problem is that we often fixate on presentation rather than what’s going on beneath the surface. Consequently, when puerile theatrics is passed off as some kind of authentic spiritual activity, many of us are none the wiser.
Another point is worth considering. The idea that pleading in the right manner will bring about certain states of affairs is not only specious, but perverse. Why perverse? If a loved one died of a horrible disease even after legions had ardently begged for mercy–day in and day out–during the entire ordeal, does that mean that they did not pray vociferously–or sincerely–enough? Had the loved one recovered instead, should we attribute the felicitous outcome to said imprecations?
The former hypothesis leads to sheer absurdity.
The latter hypothesis is beyond obnoxious–as it insinuates that all the world’s countless innocent people who did NOT recover somehow had it coming. The implication is that there is–in some obtuse sense–ultimate justice in how everything turns out…no matter how heinous the outcome. For it’s all according to god’s will.
The “all is how it should be” because “all is as god wills it” can only possibly delude…and/or lead to a kind of existential resignation. This is all splendid for those who benefit from the incumbent power structure, as it precludes any impetus to challenge the established order. (“Who are we, mere mortals, to question god’s unimpeachable will?”)
After all the groveling is said and done, the supplicant has done nothing but abet his own delusion. For the practice of scripted recitation induces a delightful stupor that is interpreted as a profound spiritual breakthrough–as if the hallmark of transcendence were inebriety. The joke is on the supplicant. In reality, he is not swaying some cosmic impresario in one direction or the other; he is merely squandering mental resources on superstitious nonsense. His delusive state validates his unfounded contentions; confirmation bias takes care of the rest.